Is University a Guaranteed Lottery Ticket?

There are many ways to achieve success!

The smart people go to university.  The almost-smart people go to college.  The rest go to work.

This once seemingly unassailable logic has been passed down to Canadian students for three or more generations and has largely permeated our academic DNA.

There are many great reasons to go to university but earning a giant paycheque and/or guaranteeing yourself a job shouldn’t be on that list.

Colleges, technical institutes, apprenticeships and even diving straight into an entrepreneurial venture are all perfectly viable career paths for today’s youths.

University is obviously still the only path available if you want to end up in a specific profession such as engineering, medicine, or law; however, many university credentials don’t always have such a defined career track and may not  guarantee a giant paycheque.  This trend seems to have increased over the last couple of decades and has been accompanied by a contrasting pattern when it comes to many of the jobs classified as “skilled labour” or “trades”.

This is not to say that university is a universally bad idea – it’s most certainly not!  The point I’m attempting to drive home is that not all university degrees are created equal (just as not all college and polytechnic programs have similar outcomes) and that the assumed dominance of a university credential over a college or trade school credential in this day and age is ludicrous.

A recent report from Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) found more and more college graduates are finding positions that actually match their education level in comparison to university grads!  Over qualification in a career can lead to lower levels of job satisfaction.

A personal story that illustrates this reality comes from my experience last year.

As a high-school teacher we often have post-secondary resources that float across our desks.  I decided to pick up one such document from a local technical college.  It was an excellent resource that detailed the employment realities for each chosen course of study after sorting out data collected from recent graduates.

After scanning through a few programs, one quickly caught my eye.  This program accepted a small number of students per session and lasted a total of six months (roughly one semester of university).  Over the last three years a full 100% of graduates from this program were employed within their field of study, and the average pay was around $75,000.

What is this miracle program you might ask?

This guaranteed ride into the middle class was a “train conductor”.

Now, clearly not everyone can be or wants to be a train conductor, but it is a useful comparison point.

It’s also useful to point out that any RESP money that young Johnny’s or Jane’s parents had put aside for them would be fully acceptable at any of Canada’s colleges or polytechnics.  In fact Johnny or Jane have until their 36th year to use the money in their RESP should they decide to take a year or two off, or switch careers, or even try their hand at starting their own business only to realize they may need to take a few business administration courses.  It’s okay to live outside-the-box!

If you are the type of person that loves working with their hands (which doesn’t preclude you from being incredibly smart btw, unlike what common perceptions might suggest) or prefer to captain your own ship as opposed to working for someone else, then there are some great post-secondary options available to you.  You don’t have to try and fit your square self into the round hole of university.

I personally had a great time in university.  I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that my courses offered and needed a university-specific credential to pursue my chosen career path as a teacher.

Universities can offer a rich and rewarding experience to the right person – but it’s important to understand that Canada’s colleges and polytechnics can offer equally ambitious and gratifying educational paths.  Choose the one that is right for you – and for the right reasons.  Not because some authority figure arbitrarily decided you were “smart” or “almost smart”.


Kyle Prevost

Kyle is a teacher by day and personal finance blogger by night. When he isn't limping up and down a basketball court, you can catch him on his soapbox at Birtle Collegiate or providing the answers to Gen Y’s questions over at and He is also the co-author of a critically-acclaimed book for Canadian students: More Money for Beer and Textbooks and has written for several of Canada's premier publications including the National Post, Globe and Mail, and Metro News.

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